On Sunday, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Lori Gottleib about marriage equality. No, not that kind. This article had the search-engine-optimized headline: “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” Like many New York Times trend pieces, the article combines social science data with anecdotes from anonymous friend-sources to provoke its navel-gazing core demographic of 18- to 46-year-olds.
Well, consider me provoked.
The core premise of the article is this: In marriages where household duties are equally and gender-neutrally divided between the spouses, the spouses are less likely to have sex. That premise is drawn from a study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage”, published in The American Sociological Review, which found that sex in equal marriages is both less frequent and less satisfying:
Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car. It wasn’t just the frequency that was affected, either — at least for the wives. The more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.
Oh boy. For those familiar with the law/grace paradigm, these findings may not be that shocking. Initially, there is the problem of the “equal marriage.” For a marriage to be deemed “equal,” someone must be doing the accounting, making sure that the relative contributions are equal, that the housework is split 50-50 or somewhere close. But accounting requires effort and is considered boring by everyone except accountants.
More importantly, though, if the accounting reveals inequalities in the marriage, then corrections are required. Corrections like “I did the vacuuming yesterday, so you have to do it today.” Regardless of how corrections are communicated–and regardless of how justified they may be–they tend to be received as nagging. And there is nothing less sexy than nagging.
Then, even if nagging gets the vacuuming done, the vacuuming does not result in more sex. The nagger resents the fact that he has to nag, while his spouse is tired from doing the chore.
Law can occasionally generate compliance, but it can never generate love. QED.
The article, unsurprisingly, does not adopt the law/grace paradigm. Instead, it points to gender differentiation as the reason for the inverse relationship between equality and love. If a man does manly chores, it seems to say, the woman will be more attracted by his manliness, and vice versa. If the man does womanly chores, on the other hand, the woman will find him less sexually attractive. Although she does appreciate the help: “having a partner who does housework and child care has become a bigger factor in women’s marital satisfaction than many other factors that used to predict marital happiness, like a man’s level of income or shared religious beliefs,” even if those women are dissatisfied with their sex lives.
Is happiness an adequate substitute for sex? Apparently not. According to the article, 56% of men who cheat and 36% of women who cheat are reportedly “happy” or “very happy” in their marriage but cheated anyway.
So what is the recipe for an egalitarian yet sexually-satisfying marriage? Sadly, the article does not provide one, as the friend-sources in the article find it impossible to reconcile daytime equality with nighttime freakiness. Deliciously, one couples therapist notes that “most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day.”
One of those things is… adultery, which, as noted above, happens quite frequently even in happy marriages. But another is something that pops up several times in the article: internet pornography. At several points, the article notes internet porn as an outlet. It is seen as relaxing or as an outlet for fantasy. Tellingly, when one wife asks her husband to indulge his online fantasies with her, he declines. It seems that porn is about a different type of fantasy:
Porn, of course, doesn’t tend to be about reciprocity. “Here’s the essence of porn,” Terry Real, a couples expert in Boston, told me. “What will you never see in a porn video? ‘Honey, I don’t like that, could you stop doing that, could you take a shower first?’ The archetype of the porn queen is that she’s a woman who derives sexual pleasure by giving the man pleasure, and — here’s the key — everything he does is absolutely perfect! What you don’t see in porn is anything that needs to be negotiated, the woman having needs of her own or the roles being reversed.”
In other words, it’s the antithesis of peer marriage.
It would seem that part of the appeal of pornography has to do with a certain kind of, er, One Way Love. In porn, the exhausted spouse finds relief from daily demands, a space where obligation melts away, where the darkest desires are known and gratified. Porn taps into a fantasy land where moral categories like fairness and equality are entirely absent, where everything the observer fantasizes about doing is imputed to be essentially perfect.
We know, of course, that pornography is not the answer. Even if porn didn’t have such intimacy-wrecking and deception-inspiring (not to mention flat-out degrading) capabilities, it can never really love you. But the desire for it points the way to a real human need—the need to be loved unconditionally by someone else, not 50% but 100%. The answer to the exhausting demands of equal marriage may be precisely this: An unconditional love that overcomes identity and ideology and frees two people to put away the ledger and love each other.